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Seniors Find Connection, Support In Technology


Now we'd like to talk about seniors and technology. And when I say that, what comes to mind? Is it you helping grandma figure out how to Skype or is it the savvy grandma of all those TV commercials of late who tweet and blog about what's going on?

Well, a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet Project debunks some of the myths and gives us a glimpse into just how older adults are using technology in their lives. Aaron Smith is a senior researcher with the Pew Center's Internet and American Life Project. And he's with us now in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

AARON SMITH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So the first myth, I think, that a lot of people have - or impression that a lot of people have - is that older people just don't use technology, apart from the kinds of seniors we see highlighted on TV commercials, who are on Facebook or Twitter. But the study says that seniors' use of technology really depends on income. Could you tell us about that?

SMITH: Absolutely. So we actually see a lot of diversity in the senior population when it comes to technology. On the one hand, you have some very tech-savvy folks. They go online. They do a lot of activities on there.

And they really - they've internalized the technology in their lives and really value it for what it gives them. On the other end of that spectrum, you have some people who, I think, match up with a lot of our stereotypes. They're very disconnected from technology. They don't see the value in it. And they would need a lot of assistance to learn how to use it.

MARTIN: So the critical factor here is not age. It's what?

SMITH: It's a combination of age and socioeconomic factors. And what's very interesting is that those are a lot of the factors that we see a play in the broader population as a whole. So just like we talk about, in the broader population, digital divide issues centering around age and income and education, we very much see that in the senior population, as well. So those disconnected seniors tend to be older.

So Internet usage and a lot of technology measures drop off pretty dramatically at about age 75. They tend to be higher income and they tend to have higher levels of education. And that's, in many ways, somewhat ironic because those folks that are disconnected from technology are in many cases the people who could benefit most from what it allows them to do.

MARTIN: From the report, amongst seniors with an annual household income of $75,000 or more, 90 percent go online and 82 percent have broadband at home. I think that is surprising to some people - to find out that there is that level. It's nearly universal.

SMITH: Absolutely. And both of those are significantly higher than we see in the population as a whole. So for certain seniors, they're as tech savvy, if not more tech savvy, than what we see in the broader population.

MARTIN: For seniors earning less than $30,000 annually, 39 percent go online and 25 percent have broadband at home.

SMITH: Absolutely. So when you look at the flip side of that, which is those folks with low levels of income, low levels of education, the older end of the older adult spectrum - and the fourth factor, that we haven't mentioned yet, is people with disabilities. A number of seniors - about a quarter of the senior population has a physical condition that makes reading challenging.

And a similar number have a health condition or disability that makes it challenging for them to do certain physical activities. So that's another issue where in many cases, older adults just have physical limitations, in terms of what they can do with the technology. And we see very low levels of tech use among folks with those disabilities or health conditions, as well.

MARTIN: The one idea, I think, that - impression that I think a lot of people have is that a motivator for seniors to use technology is to stay in touch with family. But is that true? I mean, is staying in touch the primary driver of staying connected to technology or is it other things?

SMITH: It really falls into two categories. So first of all, it is exactly that, connections with family members and, more broadly, sources of social support. And that's very important for a population that, in many cases, struggles with, you know, physical mobility and social isolation. The second element that we see, in terms of benefits to older adults in particular, is just access to information.

So when we talk to older adults who do use the Internet, overwhelmingly, they say that it helps them find information that they didn't have access to before. And that people who don't have Internet access are at a disadvantage because they're missing out on important sources of information. So certainly among the people who have sort of gotten over that adoption hump, we see that - both of those as very big factors driving that usage.

MARTIN: One of the things that surprised me from the report is that more than half of Americans now have a smartphone, but among older adults, adoption level is just at 18 percent. So that's interesting.

So the smartphone is the access to technology that, I think, most people have. In fact, a lot of very young people have them. Why do we think that is - that smartphone adoption lags? And while you're answering that, maybe you could tell me which technology seniors prefer.

SMITH: So about three-quarters of seniors have cellphones, so it's not that they're necessarily leery of cellphones per se. But you're absolutely right that very few of them have a smartphone at this point. And part of that is just that older adults tend to be at the end of the adoption curve when it comes to picking up new technologies.

But, you know, it also goes back to these very real sort of physical limitations that older adults have using technology. If you, you know - if you have trouble reading, it may be very difficult to read a three-inch smart phone screen. And so what we actually see is that more seniors have a tablet computer or an e-reader than have a smartphone, which is sort of the exact opposite of what we see in the population as a whole.

So if you, you know - if you are someone who has trouble reading or maybe has trouble manipulating a small screen, that larger form factor can maybe overcome a lot of those challenges.

MARTIN: It's interesting, because that's not how those are advertised, right? Have you noticed that they don't seem to generally advertise those as a benefit to older people?

SMITH: Well, maybe we've just found them a new market here.

MARTIN: We should find them a new market. Finally, how do minorities fit into this picture? I mean, one of the things we learned from Pew's previous studies is that minorities over-index in use of mobile devices - that they're more likely to have a mobile device than the rest of the population. Do we have any sense of how this plays out with the minority population?

SMITH: You know, we don't necessarily see that with seniors yet. Seniors, by and large, once you control for things like education, income and age, you know, really sort of look the same whether they're black or white or male or female or urban or rural.

Really those, you know, those sort of socioeconomic, age and sort of health and disability factors are what, in many cases, are really driving a lot of these adoption issues.

MARTIN: Since you've been following this for a long time, do you mind if I ask - is there something that really stood out in this report for you?

SMITH: The thing that stood out for me is just - it's a reminder of just how diverse all of these different populations are. So we grow very accustomed to thinking of seniors as this monolithic group of people who are, you know, in many cases, not very connected or not very tech-savvy. And so we kind of have, you know, a laugh at that in popular culture and so forth.

MARTIN: I've even seen commercials that have played on that - the idea that, you know - that seniors need, you know, the kids to tell them what's what. And you're telling us what?

SMITH: Absolutely. And what you really find is that there's a whole diversity of experiences within the population as a whole and with, you know, specifically seniors, as well.

And, you know, it's worth bearing in mind that as we talk about all of these groups and their experiences, that we, you know - that we keep that diversity in mind, in terms of, you know, how we serve them, how we treat them and how we, you know, kind of interact with them in our day-to-day lives.

MARTIN: Aaron Smith is a senior researcher with the Pew Center's Internet and American Life Project. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Aaron, thanks so much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.